Vast international child-pornography network uncovered
BOSTON -- The men came from different walks of life on two continents: a children's puppeteer in Florida, a hotel manager in Massachusetts, an emergency medical technician in Kansas, a day care worker in the Netherlands. In all, 43 men have been arrested over the past two years in a far-flung child porn network that unraveled like a sweater with a single loose thread.
In this case, the thread was a stuffed toy bunny.
The bunny, seen in a photo of a half-naked, distraught 18-month-old boy, was used to painstakingly trace a molester to Amsterdam. From there, investigators made one arrest after another of men accused of sexually abusing children, exchanging explicit photos of the attacks and even chatting online about abducting, cooking and eating youngsters.
Authorities have identified more than 140 young victims so far and say there is no end in sight as they pore through hundreds of thousands of images found on the suspects' computers. They are also trying to determine whether the men who talked about murder and cannibalism actually committed such acts or were just sharing fantasies.
The still-widening investigation has been code-named Holitna, after a river in Alaska with many tributaries.
"They are the worst of the worst," said Bruce Foucart, agent in charge of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agency's Homeland Security Investigations unit in Boston. "This isn't just a child that's nude and someone's taking pictures of him; this is a child that's being raped by an adult, which is horrific."
The case began to unfold when Robert Diduca, a Sheraton hotel manager from Milford, Mass., sent the photo of the Dutch boy to an undercover federal agent in Boston. Diduca, a married father of three who used the screen name "Babytodd," thought he was sending the picture to another man with a sexual interest in babies and toddlers.
Agents forwarded the photo to Interpol, the international police organization, and to several other countries.
An investigator for the Dutch police recognized the stuffed bunny as Miffy, a familiar character in a series of Dutch children's books. She also traced the boy's orange sweater to a small Amsterdam store that had sold only 20 others like it.
The boy's photo was broadcast on a national TV program similar to "America's Most Wanted." Within minutes, friends and relatives called the child's mother.
Robert Mikelsons, a 27-year-old day care worker who baby-sat the boy, was arrested. On his computer were thousands of images of children being molested and raped, including the boy holding the stuffed bunny.
Photos and online chats found on computers owned by Diduca and Mikelsons led to more than three dozen other suspects in seven countries.
, including Canada, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Mexico. The oldest victim in the Netherlands was 4, the youngest 19 days old.
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office prosecuted Diduca, said the demand for photos of sexual assaults of young children, including babies and toddlers, has increased sharply in recent years.
"This demand leads to the abuse of children, yet there is this misconception that somehow, viewing child pornography is a victimless crime," said. "It clearly is not."
Diduca pleaded guilty to child porn and sexual exploitation charges and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. His lawyer, Richard Sweeney, said Diduca was sexually abused as a child by a Boy Scout leader. "He gets it, he knows he needs to be punished, he knows what he did is wrong," Sweeney said.
Mikelsons also received an 18-year sentence, followed by indefinite psychiatric commitment, after confessing to sexually abusing more than 80 children.
The horror did not let up after the Mikelsons case.
In May, authorities arrested Michael Arnett of Roeland Park, Kan., after finding pornographic photos he allegedly produced. Agents discovered the pictures when they searched the computer of a Wisconsin man who had been chatting online with Mikelsons.
What they found on Arnett's computer was unlike anything some of the investigators had ever come across: long, graphic, online chats about his desire to abduct, kill and eat children. They said he had also made photos of a naked 2-year-old boy in a roasting pan inside his oven. The child and two other boys Arnett allegedly abused and photographed were later identified and found alive.
In July, authorities arrested four men they say had online discussions with Arnett about kidnapping and eating children. Those arrested included Ronald Brown, a children's puppeteer from Largo, Fla. (A YouTube video shows Brown during an appearance on a Christian TV kids show in the 1980s. In the video, he tells a child puppet that he did the right thing by refusing to look at "dirty pictures" some other youngsters tried to show him.)
In excerpts of an online chat between Arnett and Brown from 2011, the two men appear to be discussing their desire to cook a child for Easter.
"he would make a fine Easter feast," Arnett says.
"yes, his thighs and butt cheeks would be fantastic for Easter," Brown responds.
A lawyer for Arnett would not comment on the allegations. Brown's lawyer did not return calls.
Prosecutors said Brown acknowledged his online conversations but said that it was all a fantasy and that he would never hurt anyone.
"Obviously the discussions regarding their claims of cannibalism are disturbing and a concern to our agency," said ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein. He said agents are following all leads "to make sure these individuals didn't follow through on any of their claims."
To find the young victims, investigators carefully studied thousands of photos, read hours of Internet chats and worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They also employed some forensic wizardry.
After finding a video on Diduca's computer of a bound, 2-year-old boy being raped, investigators enhanced the images of furniture and carpet and determined the attack took place in a motel room in Bakersfield, Calif.
Then they pinpointed the date by way of a TV that was playing in the background in the video, figuring out exactly when a particular episode of "Family Matters" aired along with a certain Pepperidge Farms commercial.
A man from Black Forest, Colo., was arrested and is awaiting trial.
Similarly, in the Arnett case, investigators discovered that a water bottle in one of the photographs carried the name of a swim and scuba center in Overland Park, Kan. With the help of teachers at an elementary school, they identified three children shown in the photographs, including the toddler posed in the roasting pan.
The mother of one of the boys said she initially did not believe the allegations against Arnett, a family friend for about 15 years. She said her son, now 7, and several nephews often spent weekends at Arnett's home four or five years ago.
"Well, when we first got the phone call, we thought there's no way. You guys got the wrong guy," she said. The Associated Press does not identify victims of sexual abuse or their families.
But then investigators showed her photos Arnett had allegedly taken of her son with a shirt and no pants.
"Regret? For sending my son with a sick-minded guy, that's the only regret I have. I had no idea," she said. "It's depressing."
For the agents working on the case, the leads never seem to end.
Last week, they arrested another Massachusetts man after finding child pornography and photos of what appeared to be dead children on his computer. He allegedly had online chats with Arnett and Brown.
More arrests are expected.
"The agents that work for me are extremely driven on this type of investigation," said Bart Cahill, assistant agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Boston. "They really believe that they are taking out horrific violators and saving kids."
Associated Press writers Maria Sudekum in Kansas City, Mo., and Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.
More to explore
Former Cape councilman John Voss to run for House seat, setting up GOP battleFormer Cape Girardeau City Council member John Voss will run for a state House seat, setting up a Republican primary battle next year with state Sen. Wayne Wallingford. Voss announced his candidacy Tuesday in an emailed news release. Voss said his...
Faith compels new facility for homeless in CapeOn any given night, the Rev. Renita Green says there are a dozen or so homeless men living on the streets in Cape Girardeau. “When I say ‘on the street,’ I mean sometimes they tent, sometimes they sleep in bathrooms, some wedge themselves into...
Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Lucero to headline 55-band Fawkesfest19 in CapeHomegrown multi-day music festival Fawkesfest19 is joining forces with American rock band The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus in support of the Honorable Young Men Club and Safe House for Women on Aug. 30 and 31 in downtown Cape Girardeau. Justin Aden,...
Kelly welcomes new school district superintendentBENTON, Mo. — Nearly 100 people turned out to meet Scott County “Kelly” School District’s new superintendent during a welcome reception Sunday in the high school gymnasium. After he was introduced by Kelly School Board president David Brashear,...
Southbound I-55 in Scott County reduced for bridge workSouthbound Interstate 55 in Scott County will be reduced to one lane as Missouri Department of Transportation crews perform maintenance to the bridge at mile marker 80 in Benton, Missouri. According to the MoDOT news release, the work will be done...
Flood of 2019 sets record for durationThe Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau has set a record. Today marks the 126th consecutive day the river has exceeded flood stage, breaking the previous mark of 125 days set between June 10 and Oct. 12, 1993, according to the U.S. Army Corps of...
Cape city board nixes road projects from funding listA Cape Girardeau committee developing a list of transportation-sales-tax projects has removed one proposed Veterans Memorial Drive project from consideration while keeping extension of another section of the street on the list for now. ...
Cape Council defends decision to hire consultant for aquatic projectCape Girardeau City Council members defended their decision Monday to hire a second consultant to plan for a new, indoor aquatic center. Ward 1 Councilman Daniel Presson said “people get tired” of hearing about the city hiring consultants. Ward 5...
Jackson Aldermen approve medical-marijuana zoning, move forward on sewer extensionZoning for medical-marijuana businesses in Jackson was approved Monday night by the city's Board of Aldermen, but only after two Jackson residents asked the aldermen that the buffer zone between those businesses and any existing schools, churches...
Most read 7/15/19Business Notebook: Coming to Cape: Custom cutlery, flavorful food, health-care hackingAside from Southeast Missouri State University's River Campus, there hasn't been a great deal of development along Morgan Oak Street in the past decade or so. Once a heavily-traveled avenue that led to the old Mississippi River bridge, Morgan Oak...
Waterlogged East Cape bracing for remnants of Tropical Depression BarryThe remnants of Tropical Depression Barry will bring heavy rain to parts of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois from Monday morning through Tuesday evening, according to a Sunday afternoon alert from the National Weather Service. The alert...
Rick Horton: ‘Our effort is not only just about success’After a video of baseball days gone by, former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Horton gave a talk reinforcing the idea everyone has a “purpose and destiny” during the sixth annual Semoball Awards on Saturday at the River Campus. Horton, who is...
Telescopes, fishing poles and more: Library loans out much more than booksLending fishing poles with full tackle boxes, telescopes — and soon binoculars — are part of Riverside Regional Library’s initiative to welcome new faces who may not be aware there is more to discover beyond the walls of its six branches. Jackson...
Jackson Board of Aldermen agenda 7/15/19Public hearing n Hearing to consider amendments to Chapter 65 of the Code of Ordinances, regarding the addition of medical marijuana dispensing, manufacturing, cultivation and testing facilities as uses in specified zoning districts and establishing...
Photo Gallery 7/14/19East Cape prepping for tropical depression rainsThe remnants of Tropical Depression Barry will bring heavy rain to parts of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois from Monday morning through Tuesday evening, according to a Sunday afternoon alert from the National Weather Service. The alert said...
MoDOT changes course on center junction closureMissouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) engineers have shifted gears and now are looking to keep traffic flowing on U.S. 61 during construction of an Interstate 55 interchange between Cape Girardeau and Jackson. MoDOT officials, including...
Saint Francis to forbid physicians from medical marijuana certification; SoutheastHEALTH 'exploring' subjectCiting a federal prohibition against marijuana, Saint Francis Healthcare System says it will not allow its affiliated physicians to become certified to prescribe medical cannabis. Meanwhile, SoutheastHEALTH is exploring the issue as health care...
Deeper dive: Cape council, committee to hire second consultant for aquatic center projectThe Cape Girardeau City Council looks to hire another consultant Monday to help plan for a new, indoor aquatic center even as an advisory committee offers up an expansive list of what could be included in the project. City staff has recommended...
Oran celebrates 150th with two-day celebrationOran, Missouri, turns 150 years old July 16. To commemorate, the town is hosting a two-day celebration with food, games, tours and a full entertainment lineup at Tilles Memorial City Park July 19 and 20. To kick things off, a non-denominational...
Cape Council rewards city manager with 'reasonable' pay raisenote: with fact box showing Meyer's salary to jackson city administrator and county commissioners Cape Girardeau city manager Scott Meyer was rewarded with a $3,155 pay raise for the new fiscal year that began July 1, which one councilman called...
FEMA awards funds to county for food, shelter after floodingA grant amounting to just more than $27,000 has been awarded to Cape Girardeau County by the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency to supplement emergency food and shelter programs in the county. Announcement of the...
County agrees to pay half with Jackson on dispatch upgradesThe Cape Girardeau County Commission agreed Thursday to fund half of the equipment expenses for a combined 911 emergency dispatch center with the city of Jackson, contingent on whether the Jackson Board of Aldermen agrees to pay the other half....
Ten new organizations will receive United Way funding this yearThirty-eight programs sponsored by 28 not-profit organizations will receive funding from the United Way of Southeast Missouri over the next three years. The specific programs and agencies will be announced at a news conference at the Cape Girardeau...
Second arrest made in shooting incident at Cape convenience storeA second suspect has been arrested and charged in connection with a shootout last month in front of a convenience store on North Sprigg Street. Cedric Don Howard, 20, of Charleston, Missouri, was taken into custody Tuesday afternoon following a...
Justice center in Jackson moves ahead on schedule; exterior walls going upSpring 2020 is still the projected completion date for the justice center in uptown Jackson. About half of the exterior walls have gone up and thus far, the $18.4 million project has gone almost entirely according to script, said Phil Penzel, whose...
Most read 7/11/19Applicants look to open medical-marijuana businesses in Cape Girardeau, surrounding areaFive medical-marijuana dispensaries have been proposed for Cape Girardeau while Jackson may have a cultivation facility and Perryville, Missouri, could land two cultivation businesses and a manufacturing facility, according to pre-applications...
Most read 7/10/19Illinois commuters in waders walk through flood to get to work in CapeThey come every morning by boat, by oversize trucks and by foot through water almost up to their knees. In the evening they go home the same way. They are residents of East Cape Girardeau, Illinois, doing their best to cope with rising floodwaters...
Most read 7/8/19Business Notebook: Ray's on the move? A new eatery opens downtown, law firm opens new office and support for local charitiesRemoval of the former Ray's Plaza Banquet Center building on South Mount Auburn Road is scheduled to start today. Notice I said "removal" and not "demolition"? That's because when I spoke last week with Diane Drury of Midamerica Hotels Corp., owner...